Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.15

Conference on Feminism & Classics, Cincinnati, Nov. 4-7, 1992.

Commentary by Clara Hardy, Carleton College and Kirk Ormand, Oberlin College

  • Speakers: Judith Hallett, Marilyn Skinner, Marilyn Arthur Katz, Amy Richlin, Sarah Pomeroy, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Gerda Lerner, Helene Foley, Phyllis Culham.
  • Commentators: Alison M. Jaggar, Erich Gruen, Beth Ash, Susan Guettel Cole, Page duBois.
  • Workshop leaders: Marcia Dobson, Shelley Haley, Barbara McManus, Yopie Prins, Ronnie Ancona, Rosemary Nielsen and Robert Solomon, Holt Parker, Jane Snyder, Lillian Doherty, Mary-Kay Gamel, Eva Stehle, Heidi Vierow, Karen Bassi, Barbara Gold, Madeleine Henry, Alison Keith.
  • The recent conference on Feminism and Classics was organized by Ann Michelini and Kathryn Gutzwiller, who deserve high praise for a well-executed program. Each day consisted of two "plenary sessions" made up of two talks and a response, and two "workshops." Some workshops included the presentation of a paper (with time allotted for comments and questions), while others were carefully structured group discussions. Workshops ran four at the same time, allowing for a great deal of variety within the conference. Question-and-answer periods at the plenary sessions and at the workshops were lively. A rough count gave us a total of 146 participants (not counting speakers), 120 of whom were women.

    Much of recent feminist criticism has focused on problems of the subject, and particularly the female subject. In fact, one of the talks in the first plenary session (which both of the reviewers missed) dealt specifically with three modes of discourse that feminist scholars can currently adopt, drawing on De Lauretis' recent and brilliant article.1 It seems only fair, then, to try to articulate our complex subjectivities as reviewers at the start. We are a woman and a man (which is therefore not representative of the gender ratio at the conference), both in our first jobs after graduate school. We have been interested in feminist theory for some years, and are reasonably familiar with the basic terms of the discourse. For each of us the conference was something of a celebrity fun-fest; it was exciting to meet feminist scholars whose work we have appreciated and depended on in our graduate-school and professional careers. We both missed some plenary sessions, and between the two of us there were still many workshops that we did not attend. In any case, however, it is not our goal to summarize each of the papers that were presented. We hope, rather, to describe the tone and mood of the conference, and discuss some of the major issues that were raised.

    Some generalities first: The quality of the papers was consistently very high, and the critical methods employed were sophisticated and often daring. A mood of strong collegiality also pervaded the conference: Nearly everyone we met commented on the welcome novelty of finding themselves in a room full of scholars (mainly women) who were not only sympathetic to modern cultural criticism, but had read at least some of it and were able to provide useful discussion. This is not to suggest that the conference embodied the spirit of non-confrontational co-operative harmony that has become a dangerous stereotype of the women's movement. Strong differences of opinion do exist between feminist classicists, and it is to their credit that the speakers did not try to hide those differences under a false blanket of unity. But within broad categories, certain presuppositions were taken for granted: 1) that study of women and/or by women is intellectually valid; 2) that modern feminist theory has opened up possibilities for such study that were largely overlooked or discredited by traditional, masculinist philology, and 3) that feminists can change and are changing the face of the APA.

    Within those broad statements, several important intellectual differences became evident.2 The first we would categorize as a split in the understanding of ideology. Several of the talks given subscribed explicitly to what may be called a relational notion of ideology: this assumes that social structures are culture- and context-specific, and can only be understood (if at all) in relation to other social (such as economic, erotic, or legal) structures. Phyllis Culham, for example, gave a fascinating analysis of some social changes during the Principate which led to internal contradictions within the Imperial ideology, particularly regarding the status conferred on women in the emperor's family. Marilyn Arthur Katz used a similar theoretical approach on completely different material. Focusing on the study of Classics rather than Classical history or literature itself, Katz outlined a new history of "the woman problem," in which she showed that the question of the status of women in the ancient world grew out of, and took part in, other philosophical problems of the 18th-20th centuries, particularly the work of Rousseau. Both of these papers, then, analyzed a particular form of ideological production within careful social and historical boundaries.

    In opposition to this notion of ideology as culture-specific we would categorize what Amy Richlin and Beth Ash referred to as "Grand Theory." Grand Theory assumes that there is continuity of social structures from ancient times to modern, and that scholars can use such continuities to structure our own political stances within academia. Richlin gave a stimulating talk that attempted to address the split between these two ways of thinking about the past: she classified the first as "pessimistic" in epistemology: if social structures are culture-specific, then we can never completely understand the social institutions of the Greeks and Romans, for the local differences are too great. Grand Theorists, on the other hand, are "optimistic" in epistemology, for given broad transhistorical and transcultural continuities, they believe that we can use our understanding of modern institutions to aid our understanding of ancient ones (and vice versa). For each of these broad categories, she further classified groups as "optimistic" and "pessimistic" in their attitude about the past.

    The responses to Richlin's talk, as well as to her current work, are far from univocal. And here, interestingly, even these two reviewers come to a schism of opinion. Kirk (admittedly a methodological pessimist) doubts if Grand Theory can be held by feminists as a tenable approach. The weakness of such a position, as Ash pointed out, is that most current understandings of ideology (especially those that follow New Historians like Foucault, but also non-Foucauldians like Irigaray) do insist that social structures are specific to a given society, and moreover that this understanding is a politically important move.3 Kirk sees the assumption of cultural continuity as dangerous, insofar as it can lead to a valorization of modern patriarchal mores by (re)constructing those same mores in "Our Western Heritage." Richlin has not answered these objections to Kirk's satisfaction. Clara, on the other hand, saw the focus of Richlin's talk in a different light. Richlin argued that the two positions described above are held by scholars who surely share the same goals for the transformation of our own society. Rather than lose ourselves in this methodological debate, then, feminists should focus on the political agenda behind the study of women in antiquity, and by focusing on areas of common concern, wield the maximum of power in the here and now. While this may not answer the objections of "pessimists" to Richlin's other work, it stands as a useful, and defensible political position.

    Richlin's talk was an attempt, in part, to mediate between sharply differing understandings of ideology. Two other talks presented possible ways out of this dichotomy. Ash, in her commentary on Richlin and Katz, suggested the idea of a Gadamerian dialectic as a successful mediator between "grand theory" and Foucauldian new history. To be sure, Gadamer's notion is appealing: he posits critics working within intellectual "horizons," and suggests that these horizons are put at risk to the same extent that the horizons of the subject matter are in the process of intellection. Kirk (who read a little Gadamer long ago) is uneasy about this model, for reasons which are too complicated and, frankly, too vague in his own mind to express here.4 Nonetheless, Ash's suggestion deserves scrutiny by feminist classicists. The second way out of the dilemma was presented by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz. In detailing her own anxieties while writing a forthcoming book on Euripides, Sorkin Rabinowitz suggested a move towards the (often female, if not necessarily feminist) pre-history of certain much-worked masculine texts. Doing so, she suggests, allows us to see a female role within the narrative without either forcing a feminist reading out of a masculine text, or simply labeling such a text useless to feminists. To focus on Medea's possible archaic divinity, then, becomes a move out of the chauvinist/feminist debate that has reached virtual deadlock on Euripides' treatment of the myth. Such an approach will not work for every subject or every critic; and the critic must take care to avoid the evil shadow of essentialism. Again, however, the approach seems potentially fruitful, and deserves our attention.

    The second issue we would like to discuss is one that feminists have been arguing about for at least 15 years, and it is convenient to see Phyllis Culham as a representative of one side. Culham has argued, and continues to argue, that in teasing out the "real experience of real women" we should spend less time looking at the literary sources and more at the "hard data" of epigraphy, official documents, etc. Indeed, her paper at this conference was a lively and engaging example of how much information, and what interesting conclusions, can be drawn out of such evidence. (Sarah Pomeroy gave an equally interesting talk based on census records in Hellenistic Egypt.) Culham's view is a necessary corrective to the picture of ancient ideology that is sometimes drawn from sources like (notoriously) Ovid. But, as Judith Hallett pointed out in the discussion after Culham's paper, Culham makes use of "literary" techniques to interpret her evidence: she is certain of the meaning of key words in Tacitus because the words hold those meanings in a continuous string of earlier texts. By the same token, Helene Foley's paper (which was paired with Culham's) showed the value of a literary source for historical data. Her subtle reading of the Antigone suggested ways in which even a genre as highly mediated as Greek tragedy can be seen as representing not only the "dominant" ideology (whatever that may be) but competing ideologies within a society. Given the ongoing successes on both sides of this issue, the common ground seems broader to us than either side tends to admit.

    A third and final issue was something of a leitmotif throughout the conference, and was addressed interestingly by several people: the question of locating women's voice. This issue is large and intractable, even within the relatively narrow confines of our own field, and the following discussion is meant only to highlight some aspects of voice that the conference raised. The reviewers caught only the final dregs of a question-and-answer period in which it seemed that Eric Gruen had expressed concern that feminist scholars might be seen as "inauthentic" should they be willing to adopt different modes of discourse in different situations. Not surprisingly, this suggestion evoked strong and valid challenges; most of us now believe that discourse, whether traditional masculine or personal feminist, is constructed, and constructs its own social "authenticity." The issue is a sticky one, however, as Shelley Haley demonstrated in the same discussion: she is, she stated, always a black woman when she writes, teaches, or counsels. Such an observation presents a real challenge to the socially constructed world of many feminist scholars (these reviewers included) -- it serves as a reminder that the ability to shift to a different voice is always a privilege, and a privilege controlled by real, material (which is not to say biological or essential) factors such as race and economic position. At the same time, several speakers presented solid challenges to the assumption that traditional (masculinist) discourses are value neutral. Susan G. Cole, for example, was introduced via a highly untraditional CV, which included "incidental" facts of her scholarly development, e.g., having become a mother at a very young age.

    The reviewers regret having missed the talk by Marilyn Skinner that prompted Gruen's comments (above). The other talk that directly addressed the issue of women's voice was that of Page duBois. Responding to Foley's use of Carol Gilligan's model of male and female cognitive processes to explain differences between Antigone and Creon,5 duBois argued cogently and forcefully against recent valorizations of Gilligan that have recast the socially constructed differences that she notes into a mold of biological essentialism. DuBois further urged care in applying Gilligan's model to ancient texts, as Gilligan is analyzing modern American processes of socialization. We must be cautious, then, if we find that women in ancient texts prefer relational problem-solving techniques to abstract hierarchical rules. Their socialization (which moreover comes to us through highly mediated representations) is not ours, and we should avoid an assumption of easy continuity between their voices and ours.

    We have skipped over several outstanding papers and responses. We wish to mention briefly some of the high points of the workshop sessions. Yopie Prins' session on teaching translations of Sappho was certainly one. Her comparative approach emphasized the historicity of readers, thus providing a real correlative to the work presented by Katz (above). Her collection of translations, moreover, was fascinating to read for its variety of tone and content. Less polished, but equally valuable, were workshops like Madeleine Henry's on the sexual politics of symposia. Henry is just embarking on her study of the area, and discussion after her presentation resulted in useful comments from scholars in a wide range of specialties. Allison Keith led a fascinating discussion of Virgil's use of women in Aeneid 7. This was one of several workshops which were useful from a pedagogical as well as scholarly standpoint; Keith discussed her experience of teaching the text in different contexts, and shared a list of the sort of questions she asked of undergraduates studying women in particular. It is encouraging to see attention given to such issues without apology; for many of us it is equally if not more important to bring feminist interpretation to the classroom than to publish it for asympathetic audience.

    One particularly unfortunate workshop should be discussed, because it represents a real problem for feminists in Classics. There is no easy answer here. Both reviewers attended a session led by Robert Solomon and Rosemary Nielsen. The intent of their session, as we understood it, was to critique Foucault's classical works via the playful portrayal of erotics in the Roman elegiac poets. What came out in their introduction to the workshop, almost as an aside, appeared to be a mistrust of "theory" in favor of "texts." It was on this issue alone that discussion centered, to the extent that Nielsen and Solomon never got a chance to present their material on the poets. Despite several participants' best efforts, comments seemed to be flying askew, without real dialogue. The session leaders left quite upset; and the session came up again the next morning, although it was not mentioned by name, when Barbara McManus made a plea for inclusionary, rather than exclusionary, tactics.

    The issues here are complex. Does feminist necessarily mean pro-theory? If not, how are we to accommodate a view like that of Solomon/Nielsen, which one participant likened (we think fairly) to a 19th century aesthetic? What most of us found objectionable was the speakers' assumption that they could teach the Antigone without any theory at all, and their lack of recognition that their approach was in itself a "theory." Unfortunately, no-one present framed the discussion in those terms (though some were trying to do so), and the session degenerated to the point where real harm was done. Feminists need, as McManus stressed, to make room for a diversity of views, and methodology in particular must be discussed in an atmosphere that does not annihilate minority opinions. At the same time, feminist scholars have had to fight long and hard for the right to bring "modern theory" into the classroom. We cannot, therefore, abandon hard-won beliefs (e.g., that New Criticism, which often hides under the mask of "simple common sense", is a theory) simply so that everybody feels good about themselves at the end of a conference. To do so would be to undermine our own scholarship and, ultimately, our own standards.

    Two other rarities about this conference: first, those scholars who are celebrities went out of their way to make themselves available, especially to graduate students. As recent survivors of graduate school, we know that it is a rare opportunity when one gets to have lunch with someone whose work we have read and admired. Kudos to Amy Richlin in particular, but indeed to all the participants for making such meetings possible. Second, the post-banquet speaker, Gerda Lerner, was so learned, charming, personable, and inspiring that she made even the unremarkable banquet food into a memorable experience.

    And finally, an important complaint: One of us was present in part because her spouse was willing and able to look after a baby for the four days she was gone: available child care was, alas, conspicuous by its absence. This was strikingly odd at a conference on feminism.

    The many differences discussed above are not, in our opinion, weaknesses within feminist philology, but strengths. Various feminists' approaches are different, and our conclusions are often equally different. But throughout the conference the reviewers experienced a strong sense of respect for other scholars, and an unusual level of excitement and interest. No wonder: the work presented was often outstanding. In what is now old feminist jargon, the meeting was empowering. Its organizers deserve a great deal of praise, and already there is talk of making it an annual event. We sincerely hope that someone will pick up the torch for next year. Scholarship and camaraderie of this excellence must be supported if the discipline of Classics is to continue to be a place in which we can all live and work.


  • [1] T. De Lauretis, 1990. "Eccentric Subjects: Feminist Theory and Historical Consciousness," Feminist Studies 16: 115-150.
  • [2] In the following discussion we single out several participants' talks as examples of various positions. We do not mean to imply that these were the best (or worst) or only examples of such positions. They are serving simply as markers of the various issues and opinions that participants brought forth.
  • [3] Ash's commentary on Richlin and Katz was, for Kirk, the high point of the conference. Michelini and Gutzwiller are to be complemented for bringing this very fine non-classicist into the discussion.
  • [4] Attempts in early drafts of this review to articulate this anxiety repeatedly left readers confused. The reviewers have, reluctantly, decided that a full-scale discussion of the concepts of tradition and authority in Gadamerian philosophy is beyond the scope of this review (to say nothing of the scope of the reviewers).
  • [5] Carol Gilligan, 1982, In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. We must note that Foley responded to duBois' comments by saying that she agreed, and that she addressed these same issues in a longer version of the paper.